With skyrocketing crop prices over the past year, some landowners are eyeing their grasslands or expired CRP acres and thinking they may be able to cash in by converting that land to cropland for growing corn or other grains.

In the face of soaring crop prices, increasing land rental rates and growing demand for corn, some ag economists have predicted that as many as 20 million acres of pastureland could be removed from CRP and converted to cropland over the next decade. But, conservationists caution that there can be some grave consequences with converting marginal pasturelands to cropland.

Among the list of considerations is soil erosion. Eric Mousel, an Extension Range Livestock Specialist with South Dakota State University, calls this a “paramount concern.” Mousel points out that the millions of tons of topsoil lost to erosion from marginal farm ground are irreplaceable.

Mousel acknowledges that minimum till systems have decreased the overall amount of erosion that occurs on a given management unit, but he adds, “These systems are heavily dependent on herbicides and still include some level of tillage that ultimately results in wind and water erosion.”

Mousel emphasizes that it should not be forgotten why the Conservation Reserve Program was created in the first place – to take highly erodible lands out of production.

Conservationists say landowners really need to consider if these marginally productive lands offer much value as cropland – especially when the cost of fuel, seed, and chemicals to plant, grow and harvest the crop are evaluated.

Additionally, wildlife species can also be hit hard by the conversion of grasslands from the ecosystem, Mousel says. “Although food availability for wild species often increases under row cropping systems, upland game birds and waterfowl suffer significantly when the nesting, brooding, and winter cover provided by grasslands is eliminated,” he explains.

Given those factors, Mousel says producers should consider that, “Grasslands have a tremendous amount of monetary value in terms of livestock grazing, wildlife habitat, and other forms of recreation.”

Many producers also note that established CRP forages can be an important part of a drought plan – as the acres are often opened by the government to be utilized for haying and grazing during periods of drought.

Mousel concludes, “Grasslands also hold ancillary value in the form of their effect on water quality, aesthetics, and the biological diversity that is necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem.”